How to find local public health sources for your coronavirus coverage

Photo: Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf via FlickrMicrobiologist Kerry Pollard performs a manual extraction of the coronavirus at the Pennsylvania Department of Health Bureau of Laboratories.

Getting accurate data and information from local and state public officials is central to all journalists covering the COVID-19 pandemic, but what can reporters do when it’s hard to get local public health departments even to answer the phone or emails?

Local, state and federal budget constraints, over the past decade, have meant a loss of 56,000 jobs in the public health sector, including many public information officer and other communications positions. When the pandemic emerged in March, public health departments had few people with science backgrounds to communicate with the public.

Further, the politics of health issues and COVID-19 has made many local public health officials wary of talking to the media, for fear they might step into the midst of a political debate.

As a result, journalists have scrambled to access public health information and to find officials willing to discuss what is going on in their community.

“What you are seeing is the reality of how stretched most of these public health departments were under non-pandemic circumstances,” said Doug Levy, a former journalist with USA Today and author of “The Communications Handbook for Coronavirus and Other Public Health Emergencies. “And we were just coming off what was a bad flu season, medically, so already understaffed. Underfunded departments were not in a great position in the beginning of this.”

Levy’s advice: Use social media and send a direct message with your question to the public health director in your community via Twitter.

“I think the most efficient approach is to use social media tools,” he said. “You have a reasonable chance of getting an answer via a daily briefing, and that may be the best you can do” at this time.

For more ideas on how to use Twitter, see journalist Sally James’s suggestions in this USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism post “How to Use Twitter to Find a Treasure Trove of Real Patient Voices.”

Many public health departments and county officials are holding briefings through Facebook Live and making information available via their Twitter feeds. But if your public health department or your county isn’t providing a daily briefing or much information, Levy suggests reporters turn to the public information officer at their community’s local police department.

“Police departments have the understanding that public information is something that you have to do, and most of them have public information officers,” said Levy, noting that the police department in Mountain View, Calif., has been helping out with providing public health information to the Bay Area about the outbreak.

If journalists are trying to get questions answered via email, Theresa Spinner, director of media and public relations for the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO), suggests reporters be specific about their deadline, ask detailed questions and specify the scope of the story, so the public health department can figure out who the best person would be to answer the question.

“There is hesitation in getting out ahead of data, policies and decisions being made outside the local health department structure,” and an email might help enable public health officials to get approval from their bosses more quickly, she said.

Some states, such as Florida, have longstanding rules to not allow local public health officials to speak with a reporter unless it has been cleared directly by those working for the state’s governor, says Adriane Casalotti, NACCHO’s chief of government and public affairs.

Local health officials in Florida “are stuck in this place where everything has to go through Tallahassee,” she said.

Casalotti, suggests journalists instead reach out to former public health officials as they will be familiar with how the public health department works and won’t be tied to rules prohibiting them from speaking to media.

“We wish (public health departments) were more able to be responsive to all of you,” Casalotti said.

To find current and former local and state public health officials, take a look at your state’s association of county and city health officials. You can see a list here.

If you are having trouble getting local and state nursing home data, journalist Liz Seegert, AHCJ Aging Core Topic leader, suggests turning to the county executive’s office and the state legislators who are serving on state assembly or senate health committees.

Further, she advises reaching out to a local advocacy group like AARP, which has an office in every state and may be able to help. Another possible route is searching for retired nursing home inspectors and nursing home ombudsmen, she says.

Here are some additional resources:

Government and Non-Profit Groups

Journalism Groups

Further Reading

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